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Why You Can Copy History’s Most Successful Ads and Still Not Turn a Profit…


Or…”borrowing,” as us “creative types” like to call it.

Sure, there’s nothing wrong with it. “Swiping” is not uncommon in the copywriting world – or the overall business world at all. The biggest firms in the world do it.

Draw inspiration from each other’s ad campaigns. Study each other’s web and print designs. TV commercials. Viral marketing campaigns.

So, maybe stealing is a bit harsh then. Those with half a brain and half an ethic actually “model” and build from there to make it theirs.

It’s called going with what works.


When it doesn’t work!

Hey, we’ve all been there.

You see that amazing ad. Or a headline that stops you in your tracks, digging down so deep that it actually haunts you for the rest of the day.

Or you read an old Dan Kennedy letter and suddenly life itself tastes a little different.

So you put together an amazing sales letter or direct mail piece or sales page and put a few days into tweaking and babying it until it looks just as good, if not better, than its inspiration.

Then what happens?

All too often, a whole lot of nothing.

No increased sales. No increased sign-ins. No explosion of shares.

Just another dead silence in the deep void of the worldwide web.

So What the Hell Went Wrong?

Actually, you couldn’t have asked at a better time because just this week copycats (I don’t mean that in a bad way) of two of the world’s most famous ads come across my desk and I could see from the first glance they were both failing miserably.

Let’s have a look and see.

Case Study #1: The Reiki Headline that Laughed for All the Wrong Reasons

My first example comes from a guy was who actually seeing some decent success online, which I can only imagine is due to a fantastic traffic strategy.

He came to me because he needed a new sales page.

Not for this product but because he was ready to expand into a similar niche, Baby, and with his recent world travels, can you blame him?

But while we were talking on Skype, I quickly sensed this guy was nervous about copywriters.

Asking detailed questions about my approach to copy. About what exactly I planned to do to make the page a success.

And look, this type of attitude is understandable, but a lot of that takes place in the creative process, and he’d already seen my portfolio – that’s why we were talking.

And even though he was asking a bunch of questions…

The Guy Didn’t Know Why He Was Asking – Or Even What He Was Looking For…

Ever had that problem?

It didn’t take long to ferret out that he was just asking these questions because he was paranoid about previous bad experiences with other ad writers.

“To be honest,” he said. “I have no idea what makes good copy and what doesn’t. I mean, I’ve seen pages written by $5000 and $10,000 copywriters and I honestly couldn’t tell if they’d convert better than a page by a $500 copywriter or not.”

Uh, oh…

“Okay,” I said.

“Let’s back up a bit here. What kind of conversions are you getting on the Reiki page?”



Look, It’s Not The End Of The World To Come Out Of The Gate With a 1% Conversion.

It’s not always easy to know what’ll work beforehand, right?

And you’ve got to get something up there, see how it performs, test and tweak, and THEN you can move on to investing time, effort, and money on a new product, a new sales page, and a new marketing funnel…

I mean, think about this for one single second.

Just by taking his conversion rate up to even 3%, he could increase his revenues by 200% immediately!!!!

Let me spell this out…just in case it’s not clear.

If you can tweak one component of your marketing funnel and instantly get a 200% revenue increase, the LAST thing you better be doing is moving your attention on to new, cost-intensive projects. Come on!

But here’s the worst part.

It’s not that this guy hadn’t tried.

He had.

Actually, He’d Already Had The Page Written TWO TIMES And It Hadn’t Made A Bit Of Difference In Conversions…

Hey, I don’t know about you.

Or how much money he spent on these writers.

But, as for me, I hate throwing away ANY amount of money.

So, you can see why he was bummed out and confused by copywriting and ready to move on to a new project. It was avoidance, and it was wasteful, but it was 100% understandable.

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t the page, though, right?

Was I jumping to conclusions? I mean, three different versions and each one got the same conversions. Almost seems to say something about the traffic rather than the copy.

It could always be his ads, for instance. Or the presell.


But the only way to know was to look.

So I did.

And You Could Immediately See What Was Wrong.

Here was his headline:


A little flat, right?

It just feels hollow.

But that’s not the real problem.

And to drill right down to the real problem – the deeper psychological absence that creates that feeling of hollowness – it helps to know where this headline comes from.

In fact, if you know anything about marketing or advertising history, this one is probably familiar.

If it isn’t, well, I advise you start studying your marketing more or at least admit you know nothing about it.

Because if you’ve been around marketing circles for any time at all you’ve probably seen the ad a dozen times or more, or at least seen its copycat headlines a dozen times.

How to Botch the Most Successful Headline Setup That Ever Existed.

First, keep in mind that headlines are the most important part of any page.

If your headline fails to do its job, the reader won’t go any further. It’s really that simple.

And in fact, the ONLY job of your headline is to get the first sentence read, as Joseph Sugarman so aptly pointed out.

Because if they don’t make it past the headline, you won’t get a chance to dig in the pain. You won’t sink in your hook. You won’t get an opportunity to introduce your offer as the #1 solution.

And you definitely won’t get a chance to tell how it’s different than everything else on the market, smack them with an unbeatable price, or lay out a no-brainer guarantee to close a deal.

This Headline Is A Prime Example.


The headline pegs the target market all wrong.

The headline assumes people already want to be Reiki Masters.

And hey, they may very well be interested in learning Reiki (depending on the ad targeting), but the focus should be on the benefits of learning reiki in the first placenot on making it believable it can be taught fast.

The fact that Reiki can be taught so fast is great…


As a differentiator for this course.


And so a big disconnect is created.

Let’s Turn the Pages of History Back to the Original Famous Millionaire-Making Headline

The headline used here is based off of a famous advertisement written in 1926 for the U.S. School of Music.

And, as I said, it’s one of the most famous headlines ever devised.

However, if you compare his closely to the original headline, you can see where it falls short almost immediately. And it may not take a seasoned copywriting or marketing pro to see this.

Let’s start by looking at his again.

The Reiki Course Headline:


Now, let’s have a look at its ancient but magnificent predecessor.

The Music School Headline that Started it All:


Can You See The Difference?

It’s okay – you can say “no.”

Let me explain.

The client’s headline zeroes in on the fact that reiki can actually be learned really fast, which is really cool but, again, is not the main point of his product.

Who cares if it can be learned fast?

Tell me why I should want to be a reiki master in the first place!

The original music school headline, on the other hand, digs straight into the psychology of wanting to be better at the piano, at feeling lesser for not knowing how, and tells the story of going from a nothing to a somebody.

It’s very subtle but it’s very there.

They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano but When I Started to Play!

Even though we don’t live in those times, you can still see something happening on a very deep emotional level here, and that’s why it works.

Sure, there was plenty more to improve about this guy’s page, but the headline issue was the vital one.

From there, you would need to tweak the rest of his page to flow with the tone and “story” the headline starts with. Tightening the sub-heads. Making them stronger. Easing the flow.

A better design, at least making the the top of the page look more pro.

Do you think all that would increase his conversions?

Sure it would!

By a huge margin!

But the very first step is creating an angle, a psychological hook that actually digs into the market – not coming out of the gate talking about how fast the course is.

Case Study #2: How to Light the Match and Watch Gary Halbert’s Famous $1 Letter Go Up in Flames

Okay, this famous letter was actually 8 pages long, but we’re not going to look at the entire thing because the client was not drawing from it in entirety.

Gary Halbert, if you’re not aware already, was one of the most respected copywriters of all time, may he rest in peace. And is considered by many to be THE greatest copywriter who ever lived.

One of Halbert’s favorite strategies was attaching coins or dollar bills to sales letters that he sent out – even going as far as attaching a $100 bill to a well-targeted mailing in some instances.

The idea was to use a creative means of instantly demanding attention because – just as a page doesn’t get read if you don’t get attention right out of the gate – so a sales letter will not be opened or read if you don’t demand attention.

Actually, if You Dig Deeper, the Concept Wasn’t Created By Gary Halbert.

The original “dollar letter” was written by another famous copywriter, named Robert Collier, who built his fortune in the 1920s.

This letter was no joke.

It got a 90% response rate! He sent it out 175,000 times, made $270,000 (a reasonable fortune in itself at the time) and 90% of the time they mailed the $1 bill back to him!

And that was just the lead generation!

He now had a list of 150,000 people that had already paid him $270,000. These were qualified buyers – not a list of freebie seekers downloading a free report.

And he went on to turn the list into $14 million!

That’s the power in using sales copywriting strategies the right way.

Let’s get back to Gary Halbert and the Client Who was Copying Him All Wrong.

Here’s the opening of Gary Halbert’s One Dollar Letter:


Here’s a Copy of the Client’s Letter, With My Critiques (I’ll Spell Them Out Below).


Okay, What’s Wrong Here?

Well, he was posting a $5 bill (actually it was a £5 note, but I’ve fiddled with the numbers in here a bit) at the top instead of a $1 bill, and with currency changes from the 1920s, or even since Halbert’s time, that’s a darn good move.

This letter may very well even work.

But it has some serious flaws concerning the open.

  1. As it turns out, he’d included two case studies in his letter detailing how he’d made two of his marketing clients complete business turn-arounds using his advice. Just one example was turning a barely-surviving, $1500 per month personal training practice into a 2,000 sq. ft. facility, a 215+ client list, and $37,000 – $45,000 in monthly revenue!
  2. What’s more, the beforementioned client (and another client success story) BOTH referred the recipients of this new letter campaign!

Here’s what it really boils down to – Halbert’s letter strategy is awesome, and this modern-day marketer here could have still attached the bill without using the same wording, but when it comes to the opening, the end result this marketer got for his customers is far more eye-catching than an explanation about his $5 bill.

And Halbert’s list was much broader than his – this marketer had referrals sending him to the prospects and demonstrable results for other people in their community.

THAT should have been his open!

If You Read the Bullets, He Also Overstates the Case for the $5.

In the original Halbert letter, he gives two reasons for attaching a $1 bill.

The second one is:

“And secondly, since what I am writing about concerns ways you can make a lot of money, I thought using a dollar bill as an “eye-catcher” was especially appropriate.”

What does the writer mimicking Halbert’s great strategy give for his second reason?

“And secondly, for reasons I will explain in a moment, I wanted you to experience, as you opened this letter, the totally unique thrill of receiving money in the mail from a completely unexpected source.”

Now, this is subtle, but that wording could be a tad insulting.

Remember, it’s a $5 bill.

It’s very eye-catching and unique (even after all the times it has been done), but it’s not exactly a huge payday for most business owners…

Look at how Halbert did it. He didn’t go so far as to pretend it was a bunch of money (even if the human mind does subconsciously respond to free cash). He just calls it an “appropriate eye-catcher.”


Everyone knows the $5 is a marketing ploy when they get it, but for a marketing consultant, a blatant marketing ploy becomes a huge selling point for his services.

So while it was smart to use this idea of “conditioning them to receive money” in the mail as an explanation, it needed to be toned down and left to state itself.

After the Open, The Client Introduced Himself.


Not strong enough, and I’ll tell you why.

If he’s got the attention already, he needs to be jumping into the hook.

This sub-header doesn’t do it.

Let’s look at this same section from Halbert’s letter above.



Notice how the subhead is the title of a free report these readers requested – from a Washington Post ad offer he ran? Then comes the title of the report:

Hot New Reports From Top Ad Expert Reveal 6 Amazing Secrets!

And then he rattles off a list of great bullets.

Mmmm…look at that juiciness for a second.

There’s a lot more going on here than meets the eye.

First of all, these people were coming to Halbert, not the other way around, and that says a lot about why this particular letter got the results it did. It was a follow-up letter – not a cold approach.

That isn’t to say you can’t make a similar approach serve the purposes like the client here was trying to do – you can.

The $1 Letter (or $5 Letter) works!

But this client had a lot more work cut out for him because he was not already on this prospect’s radar as Halbert was his.

But there’s more to the mention of the report.

Halbert’s Use Of This As A Sub-Head Wasn’t Just a Re-Introduction of Himself and His Report.

It was also to remind the prospect of the benefits of what he had to offer!

Look how alluring that subhead is. Especially when combined with the bullets.

Halbert could have used something similar with no mention of a report here and it would have fit perfectly and served the exact same purpose, which is SELLING THE BENEFITS.

The client’s subhead simply didn’t do that.

It was too dry, and I get why he included it. Because he felt a need to explain himself, and that’s understandable.

But what he needed to do was just get right to it instead of “asking permission” to sell.

His purpose at this point of the letter should have been to build interest, not introduce himself.

And here’s another thing.

Further down in the letter, he mentions that his reader/prospect was referred by two people he’s gotten success for. Specifically, one is the woman whose business he took from a fledgling personal training wannabe business to a smashing solopreneur success!

This should become the open to his letter AND the subhead (since he’s not Gary Halbert and hasn’t already promised them a free report).

I mean, two people recommended this prospect and he’s got case studies of their results?


And he needs to come out swinging with this, to be honest.

Thanks to my advice, now he’s on his way to doing just that…

There’s a lot more room for improvement in this letter, as you can probably see by reading through the screenshots. But that’s enough for now.

Look, what’s the main point of these two stories?

It Doesn’t Make Sense to Copy What Worked for Advertisements in the Past if You Don’t Understand the Deeper Psychology!

And then leverage that psychology for your own purposes.

To build your own creative campaign…

To connect and engage with your own audience…

To get your own sales, profits, and business growth…

TO create your own smashing success…!

So copy the successes, sure.

But copy with correct understanding, correct knowledge, correct principles, and correct psychology to create a campaign that becomes a perpetual lead-generating machine.

Just imagine the difference that could make…

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